I’m telling you, the book Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich is a stunner. I’m finding it hard to put down. It’s an oral history of life in post-Soviet Russia. Alexievich simply lets people talk — all kinds of people. In the US, most of us figured that all Russians, aside from Communist Party officials, would be thrilled to be done with the Soviet Union, and that they would rejoice in their new freedom. It wasn’t true. What is most fascinating about this book is the interviews with the people who know Communism was evil and unsustainable, but who miss it — or parts of it — anyway. Why? Lots of reasons, but so far, mostly because it gave them a sense of order, purpose, and meaning. Reading the transcripts of these interviews is to confront flesh-and-blood people struggling to make sense of what has happened to them and to their country.
Take, for example, Margarita Pogrebitskaya, a 57 year old doctor. She recalls her childhood, filled with color and passion and patriotism. For her, it was a wonderland. She cries talking about her memories of Soviet-era Moscow as a child and then as a young woman.
We went to school with cheap pencil cases and forty-kopeck pens. In the summer, you put on some canvas shoes, spiff them up with tooth powder, and they’re pretty! In the winter, it’d be rubber boots, the cold would burn the soles of you feet– it was fun! We believed that tomorrow would be better than today and the day after tomorrow better than yesterday. We had a future. And a past. We had it all!
We loved our Motherland, our love for her was boundless, she was everything to us! The first Soviet car — hurrah! An illiterate worker unlocked the secret to making our own Soviet stainless steel — victory! The fact that everyone in the world had already known this secret for a long time is something we only found out later.
So, Dr. Pogrebitskaya knows the story the Soviets gave her was manufactured, was a lie. But she misses it terribly.
And yes! Yes! Yes! My greatest dream was to die! To sacrifice myself. Give myself away.
She sold her soul to the Party with the confident ardor of a religious zealot. She adored Stalin. Worshiped him, even.
Ask me … You have to ask how these things coexisted: our happiness and the fact that they came for some people at night and took them away. Some people disappeared, while others cried behind the door. For some reason, I don’t remember any of that. I don’t! I remember how the lilacs blossomed in the spring, and everyone outside, strolling; the wooden walkways warmed by the sun. The smell of the sun. The blinding mass demonstrations: athletes, the names of Lenin and Stalin woven from human bodies and flowers on Red Square. I would ask my mother this question, too …
The doctor recalls stories her mother told her about the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine, to destroy the kulaks. Of starving mothers murdering their own children and feeding their bodies to their neighbors. Of Ukrainians digging up the soil and eating earthworms. Of Soviet soldiers surrounding the Ukrainians, treating them like they were inmates at a “concentration camp.” And still:
I loved Stalin … I loved him for a long time. … I was a Stalin girl for a long time, a very long time. Yes … that’s how it was! With me … with us … With that life gone, I’m left empty-handed! I have nothing … a pauper!
She reminisces again about her youth, and the idealists who marched off to build socialism in the remote parts of Russia. They were lied to by the government:
They never made it to the Virgin Lands, they were sent to the taiga somewhere to build a railway, dragging rails on their backs, waist-deep in ice water. There wasn’t enough machinery … All they had to eat were rotten potatoes, so all of them came down with scurvy. But they did it! There was a girl, too, seeing them off, brimming with admiration. That girl was me. My memories. … I refuse to give them up for anyone: not the communists, not the democrats, not the brokers. They’re mine! All mine!
Now, a caveat: I am told that many Russians do not like Alexievich. One put it to me like this: “This lady belongs to the category of people who love truth and demonstrate their love every day and every night (until someone sees them in the dark).” I’m not entirely clear whether this means that she’s guilty (in their eyes) of moral preening, or also of stretching the truth. I am eager to hear from Russian readers of this blog on this point.
That said, assuming the quoted material above is true and accurate (in that it faithfully represents the views of a particular Soviet-era doctor), it says a lot about not only the Russian character, but also human nature.
The doctor preferred Soviet life because it gave her meaning, purpose, an identity, and order. It did not matter to her that that order meant mass slaughter, and the Gulag archipelago. Or to be precise, it mattered, because she knows she can’t simply deny its existence. But she compartmentalizes it such that those horrors cannot taint the perfection of her Soviet memories.
One thinks of the testimony of certain released prisoners who, having spent most of their lives in jail, find upon release that they cannot cope with freedom. I thought about what it must have been like for white people in the American South after losing the Civil War. At some level they have to have known that the entire social and economic order could only exist at the cost of a monstrous injustice, and yet, the nostalgia for it was undoubtedly powerful, even overwhelming, in the same way that Dr. Pogrebitskaya’s longing to have the Soviet world back. That’s a banal observation, I suppose, but here’s what’s interesting to me about these cases: I expect that just like Pogrebitskaya, many Southerners would not have been able to justify the institution of slavery if pressed. But like Pogrebitskaya, they would have partitioned it so that it didn’t contaminate their memories of and longing for the ancien régime, and its certainties. I can’t say that for sure, but I believe it is possible.
Mind you, I’m not saying that this renders Progrebitskaya or any of my putative postbellum Confederates beyond judgment. Not at all. I’m saying that the human heart is fathomlessly intricate and complicated.
In my personal experience, I find the material I read in this book somewhat relevant to how many Catholic people experienced the sex abuse scandal. I never could understand why so very many ordinary Catholics seemed untouched by it, even though it was all over the media. Why they didn’t demand to get to the bottom of it, to insist on accountability on the part of their bishops and priests. My belief has always been not that they were (are) intentionally indifferent to the suffering of victims and their families. Rather, they could not admit into the fullness of their imagination the horrible facts of the scandal, because they had to preserve the ideals upon which so much of their lives are based. So, they were like the nostalgic Soviet doctor in that they could recognize that something went terribly wrong, and innocents suffered, but they minimized it or in some other way compartmentalized it to buffer themselves emotionally and psychology.
I have also seen this dynamic work itself out in families. I’m thinking of a friend from my school days whose mother was an abusive alcoholic, but whom he worshiped, because with his father out of the picture, she was all he had. He needed her to be a much better mom than she was, so he edited out the truly appalling parts of her in the narrative of his life.
Anyway, if you are truly flummoxed, even at this late date, by how anyone could vote for Trump, think about Dr. Pogrebitskaya. The other day, in a post about the book in this space, I quoted some anonymous Russian saying that he (she?) longs for the greatness of the Soviet Union, even though he is too young to remember it. He knows that his country used to be great. It’s not anymore. People can endure a lot of pain and hardship if they believe that they are part of something greater than themselves. And they will be easy — too easy — to trust those politicians who say they will get it back for them.
On the other hand, those politicians and leaders who believe that the sum total of politics is hammering out policies to maximize efficiency and material comfort ought to take a lesson from this too. It is interesting, though, to think about why the project of building a united Europe through the EU has not captured the imaginations of the peoples of Europe (aside from the Eurocratic elites). Is it because the EU is an empire united not by blood or religion (and Soviet communism was a form of religion)? George Weigel speaks to this problem in his short book The Cube And The Cathedral.
Nobody dies for a cube, so nobody lives for it either.
UPDATE: Some of you have asked how a 57 year old woman could have been a “Stalin girl” given that the dictator died in the 1950s. I should have mentioned that the interviews in Alexievich’s book too place from 1991 to 2012. There was no date attached to the doctor’s interview. If she had been interviewed in 1991, that would have meant she was born in 1934.